Within the scope of state neutrality, this is mainly the first question which shall be raised when we tend to adjudge the communication of a public authority during the election campaign period. In many cases, public authorities use their positions to interfere with the campaign, even though their obligation is to warrant “political pluralism and the political parties’ equal opportunity in the political contests” (see Decision Kvk.IV.37.360/2014/2.). Let’s see whether the Government’s newsletter met these expectations.
On the 24th of February 2022, during the second week of the official election campaign period, the Government Information Centre sent an online newsletter to those Hungarian citizens who, during the required registration, had agreed to the management of their email addresses as personal data to access the vaccine against COVID-19. Instead of informing the citizens on pandemic-related matters, however, the newsletter contained the Government’s opinion on the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and the opposition’s believed viewpoint on the war.
According to the Decision of the Curia (Kvk.II.39.260/2022/5.), the expressed view of the Government (“…the opposition’s standpoint pursuant to which Hungary should send soldiers and weapons to the territory of Ukraine was found irresponsible and shall not be supported by the Government”) violated the principle of equal opportunities for political parties under Section 2 (1) c) of the Act XXXVI of 2013 on Electoral Procedure (EPA). In accordance with the Decision, the question shall be assessed whether this communication falls within the scope of Section 141, considered as campaign activity, or rather of Section 142, considered as an activity arising from functions determined by the law. The Curia (the Supreme Court of Hungary) held that the legal provisions do not permit the Government to criticise the opposition’s real or perceived standpoint within the framework of Section 142. Moreover, stating that the opposition’s opinion is irresponsible could possibly influence voters’ choices, therefore shall be considered as campaign activity under Section 141. Equal treatment of the parties shall only be guaranteed if the state provides the exact same objective external conditions to all parties in order to relay their messages to the voters.
Contrary to the above, the Constitutional Court of Hungary (HCC) held [HCC Decision 3130/2022. (IV. 1.)] that the decision of the Curia is inconsistent with the Fundamental Law (Constitution) of Hungary since the Government only fulfilled its obligations under Article IX (2) of the Constitution. The institutional protection of democratic public opinion is the Government’s constitutional obligation, conversely, it is the citizens’ fundamental right to access comparative information in order to make informed and free choices. In exceptional situations such as a war in the neighbourhood, the role of the Government in serving the public interest could be wider. This differentiation led to the conclusion that the Government only aimed to present various political views on the armed conflict to establish and maintain democratic public opinion.
As the current case shows, the Curia and the HCC gave different answers to the previous question on different grounds. The Curia found the Government’s communication partial towards the ruling parties, yet they did not examine the statement on the basis of war, whereas the HCC considered it necessary to introduce diverse political viewpoints during these tough times.
The views expressed above belong to the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Centre for Social Sciences.